Monday, January 08, 2018

Instead of Selling Objects, Build Public Trust


You run a regional museum. It's been struggling financially for years. Now, you have a new vision--co-created with trustees and community leaders--for a path forward. You'll transform it into an interactive science-oriented institution. And you'll build your endowment, too. How will you pay for it? By selling off artworks that no longer serve your mission.

This is the plan that plunged the Berkshire Museum into hot water. It's sparked public uproar, legal battles, and nationwide press coverage. It's cracked the crumbling, outdated rules around deaccessioning--and unearthed more serious issues of public trust.

Here's what happened. In July, the Berkshire Museum released its $60,000,000 New Vision, along with a funding mechanism: selling 40 of its most valuable artworks. Berkshire Museum officials argue that art is not core to their institution going forward and that they are therefore deaccessioning material that is no longer relevant to their mission. But it's not that simple. The 40 artworks are valued at $50 million. They include two of the most famous paintings by Norman Rockwell. Rockwell donated those paintings himself to the Berkshire Museum to be enjoyed in his home community. The Berkshire Museum has been unwilling to sell or transfer the paintings to another regional institution, presumably assuming they will get the highest price at auction.

Cue public uproar and legal action to block the auction. Cultural organizations, community members, and museum leaders have spoken out against the sale. The controversy started in July of 2017. The Attorney General of Massachusetts has put a hold on the sale and will issue a ruling at the end of January. It's taken me that long to figure out how I feel about the whole thing.

THE ANTIQUATED, FRAGILE RULE ON DEACCESSIONING

At first blush, I'm sympathetic to the Berkshire Museum. I am not a fan of the rule that restricts deaccessioning of museum artifacts for purposes other than improving the collection. I think the rule needs to be overhauled, for three reasons.
  1. The rule is simplistic. It states that museums can only sell objects to purchase or care for other objects. No other assets in a museum are restricted in this way, and this restriction can lead to lopsided priorities and bizarre practices. I once consulted with a museum that had no museum--no building, no public programs, no exhibitions. It had a collection and an endowment (funded by deaccessioning) to grow and perpetuate that collection. Their objects were locked in a private prison, protected far from the public in whose trust they purported to be held.
  2. The rule is weak. This rule is poorly enforced with few consequences--which is the very reason an issue like the Berkshire Museum's arises. The rule against wanton deaccessioning is a kind of gentleman's agreement in the museum world. Professional organizations like AAM and AAMD are against it, but their forms of censure are few. Individual museums might risk bad press, finger-shaking, and loss of funding for taking these actions, but the consequences are highly variable and often short-lived. Trustees can hold their noses and roll the dice if they want to.
  3. The rule is outdated. The deaccessioning rule (last updated in 2000) perpetuates the hegemony of artifacts as the heart of museums. While some museums have, admirably, stuck with an object-rooted mission, many have shifted to other goals. It doesn't make sense to maintain a special class of protections for one category of assets when many museums no longer base their missions on the care and stewardship of those assets. This is essentially the argument that the Berkshire Museum is making--that they will no longer BE an art museum and therefore should not be required to protect art objects uniquely.
I think the deaccessioning rule has outlived its usefulness. But that doesn't mean I support the Berkshire Museum's choice. I don't.

THE REAL ISSUE AT STAKE

To me, the issue in the Berkshires is not about deaccessioning artwork. The issue is violation of public trust.

The Berkshire Museum isn't deaccessioning artifacts of questionable public value. They are selling off forty of their top artworks on the open market. By deaccessioning the most valuable art in their collection, the Berkshire Museum is transferring valued public assets into private hands. They are making an arrogant gamble, claiming that their planned new museum will have equal or greater public value than the artworks they are selling to fund it. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. They are selling heritage to finance progress. It's not surprising that not everyone takes their claims on faith.

It's not entirely the Berkshire Museum's fault that they are in this position. The inflexible rule on deaccessioning forces them into an all-or-nothing choice. Right now, there is no "ethical" vehicle by which a museum might sell high-value artifacts for any purpose other than to buy and protect other artifacts. An institution like the Berkshire Museum risks professional censure whether they sell a painting on the open market or to another museum--assuming they plan to use the proceeds to fund their New Vision. Why wouldn't they make the rational choice to get as much money as possible for their sins?

Because their choice has consequences beyond their own self-interest. It exposes the fragility of the rule of deaccessioning, the thin line between "treasured public asset" and "hard cold cash." The rule is built on a sleight of hand, a conceit that says that museums WON'T acknowledge the market value of objects... until they will. As Diane Ragsdale put it, "When communities become markets, citizens become consumers, and culture becomes an exploitable product."

When museums start putting price tags on their objects, other institutions do too. When Detroit was going bankrupt in 2013, the city's emergency manager fought to sell off some of the prized artworks in the Detroit Institute of Art. In 2009, Brandeis University came close to looting and liquidating its Rose Art Museum, and today, a similar controversy is raging over the museum at La Salle University. At La Salle, as in the Berkshires, university leadership argues that the deaccessioning and closure of the museum is a necessary, painful corrective to dire financial conditions. These museums and their artworks were exposed as market assets to be cashed in as needed.

Museum professionals often decry these actions because they will disincentivize future donors from giving valuable artwork to museums (and therefore, the argument goes, to the public). But I think there's a much more insidious impact of these actions: it encourages the continued slide of museums away from the public trust and into the market economy.

And once that happens, all bets are off. Two years ago, the Detroit Institute of Art won the battle to keep their treasured artwork in the museum. But other battles have been--and could be--lost. It could even happen on a national scale. If a rapacious, short-sighted federal government is willing to strip protected land for natural resources, what's to stop them from looting the Smithsonian to fund their own version of progress?

CREATIVE ALTERNATIVES TO THE MARKET ECONOMY

There are creative alternatives to traditional museum deaccessioning policies that could solve this problem. Instead of fighting to protect an imperfect and antiquated rule, we could create new rules--rules that put the public trust, not objects, first.

Other nonprofit industries have done this. Accredited American zoos, for example, have a strict policy that governs how animals move from one institution to another. If your zoo no longer plans to exhibit giraffes, those giraffes don't suddenly become fungible assets on the open market. They become tradeable assets within a controlled market--with other accredited zoos, who will care for the giraffes as well as you once did.

Food banks have an auction-based model. There's a national online auction site where food banks can bid on large lots of donated food with fake money, called shares. The auction system helps individual food banks determine what they need most, rather than a national agency guessing--and sometimes, guessing wrong.

Both zoos and food banks have gotten creative about how to manage their assets AND serve the public trust. Instead of clinging to outdated deaccessioning policies, it's time for museums to get creative as well. If we don't, we risk betraying the public trust in a venal grab for more flexible assets.

Rather than converting assets from the public trust to the private market, I'd like to see more creative ways for nonprofits to INCREASE the number of assets in the public trust. I'd like to see dividends from large endowments shared among nonprofits in their respective communities. I'd like to see more land trusts sharing their space with other organizations. I'd like to see more museums sharing their artifacts. I'd like to see more marketplaces like those of zoos or food banks, so assets in the public trust can be shared wisely and efficiently.

We shouldn't have to choose between the Norman Rockwell paintings and a great Berkshire Museum. There should be a way to expand the pie of public assets instead of swapping the heritage we have for the future we will build.

What if the Berkshire Museum could sell a fraction of their prized artworks to other museums, for a fraction of their fundraising goal, so they could test out whether their "New Vision" actually served their community better? What if they got involved in a project like Culture Bank, to invest the artworks securely to fund some aspects of their planned transformation? What if they worked out a way to accrue less and get more -- more for their community, more for the public at large?

The pressure will always be on to capitulate to the market economy, to embrace the market and live by its rules. But we can resist. Nonprofit organizations have unique opportunities to resist. If we want to embrace communities instead of markets, we have to fight for it. We have to fight for the public trust, generosity, and shared ownership. We have to be ingenious in coming up with alternative forms of economic value, accumulation, and transfer. No one is going to do it for us.

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